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Culturally Rich Sweet Bread, the King's Cake Tradition

What does January, a delicious sweet bread and a plastic baby have in common? Find out how this writer adopted a New Orleans tradition.

If you decide to tell me about your family traditions, you better watch out. If you have a custom that I find interesting, fun, or delicious, there is a very good chance I will steal it, especially if it involves good food. I confess, learning about different customs and celebrations is something I find quite fascinating, and over the years I have, well, let's just say “adopted” some of those celebrations into my own life.

Several years ago, a group of online friends of mine were discussing when and how they take down their Christmas decorations each year. Some were happy to move on to other things the day after Christmas, while others waited until long into January or even into February. One of these friends, who is from the New Orleans area, told us about her family's custom. The tree and all the decorations stayed up until Jan. 6 for Epiphany. On that day, they took down the decorations, had a special dinner and always served "King Cake" to mark the beginning of Mardi Gras or Carnival Season on that day. She described the cake as a sweet, sometimes iced, cinnamon yeast bread that is rolled and twisted into a circular or oval shaped ring. It is is traditionally sprinkled with green, purple and yellow colored sugars. It could be filled with cream cheese and nuts, or left unfilled. When the cake is served, the person who finds the baby is crowned King/Queen for the day or until the next party, they will have good luck and will be the next person to buy a King Cake or host a party.

Baby?! Did she say baby?! What baby?! What exactly was this traditional bread and where could find it? I had to know more because much like a cat, curiosity is not something I can resist and is a force that must be reckoned with, sparing no innocent bystander. No interesting tradition should ever go untested, nor should any bread or cake ever, and I do mean ever, go untasted.

Okay, so ….maybe you think I live in a cave because you have always known about this tradition. But maybe at least some of you are clueless just like I was and want to know more.

First, here's a little background on the roots of the King's Cake tradition. The day itself is celebrated around the world in Christian faiths and has many different names: Epiphany, Twelfth Night, el Dia de Reyes, Three King's Day, Little Christmas and Nollaig Bheag just to name a few. Jan. 6 is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and this is typically the date for these celebrations. Many people think the 12 days of Christmas are celebrated before Christmas, but they actually begin on Christmas day. In these celebrations, the day commemorates the day the Magi arrived bearing gifts for Jesus. Some families celebrate this date with a big feast and gifts.

In New Orleans, Twelfth Night marks the first day of Mardi Gras or Carnival season. Celebrations on this day, or during this season would not be the same without the traditional King Cake. This sweet bread was a based on old European tradition, and became a centerpiece of the season's festivities. The colors of the sugars that are sprinkled on the cake are representative of the Mardi Gras colors, which are purple (justice), green (faith) and gold (power).

Now back to that baby question....

A plastic baby, bean or nut is hidden inside the cake and the person who finds the “baby” in their piece is crowned King/Queen for the day and is also supposed to either buy the next King Cake or host the next party. Even though finding the baby was always considered lucky, sometimes people didn't feel so lucky that they were responsible for holding the next party. King Cakes are easily found in bakeries throughout the area in New Orleans, but they aren't commonly found in bakeries or grocery stores here. Many people order them online from New Orleans, but you can definitely make your own.

Some may think of Mardi Gras as one day of festivities on Fat Tuesday. However, Mardi Gras or Carnival season actually begins on Jan. 6, and ends at the conclusion of Fat Tuesday at midnight when Ash Wednesday begins, marking the beginning of Lent in February or early March.

Different cultures around the world celebrate this holiday with a similar sweet bread as well. In Mexico and some other countries, Rosca de Reyes is the traditional bread served on Jan. 6, the day known as el Dia de Reyes or Three Kings Day. Rosca de Reyes also includes a baby trinket that is hidden inside. This is a sweet bread that is typically decorated with candied fruit and is also round or oval in shape. The person who finds the trinket will be the host of the next celebration for Candelmas or Candeleria on Feb. 2. Rosca de Reyes can also be found in some local bakeries in our area and/or ordered online.

Last year, my daughter and I made our own King Cake, which we considered to be a pretty incredible treat for our palates and very much worth the effort. We liked it so much, we made it again on Fat Tuesday. This bread is so big and scrumptious, I would say it could give Fat Tuesday a second meaning. The taste is much like a homemade cinnamon roll, yet different. There is really nothing like it, so the only way you will know what it is like is if you try one. I have yet to be crowned Queen though, as my daughter got that honor both times we made the cake. We had a lot of fun with this part of the New Orleans tradition that I so shamelessly stole....I mean... borrowed, and look forward to doing this each year.

As I said in , I will share the the link for King Cake recipe that I used. It is from the Fabulous Foods website. The only changes that I made were that I mixed the cinnamon into the bread during the final knead process instead of sprinkling it on top. Also, the last time I made this, I didn't use lemon juice in the icing, but used water and ¾ teaspoon of lemon extract instead, which came out great too. I tried both the bread machine mixing and the traditional mixing, which seems to come out the same, but the bread machine method was much easier. In the recipe, they include both ways, but you have to look closely to separate the two.

http://www.fabulousfoods.com/recipes/mardi-gras-king-cake-traditional-and-bread-machine-versions

I would love to hear from readers who have these or similar traditions and/or recipes to share. However, I am giving you fair warning that a certain blogger might not be able to resist “borrowing” them.

Here are some interesting links with information and history:

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Katie L. January 06, 2012 at 07:07 PM
Sweet! (pun intended)
Jennifer Squires January 07, 2012 at 12:32 AM
Enjoyed some Rosca de Reyes from Gamma Bakery with El Pajaro CDC, the businesses owners from Plaza Vigil and Margarita of Loaves and Fishes today. Yum!! Look for the story in the morning.
Allen Rozelle January 15, 2012 at 03:07 PM
A old French tradition as well. Often, they make a Pithiviers cake for the celebration. Google pithivier recipe.

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